For those that live in the midlands of England everyone will know the age-old story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. He is the legend of the North, who counter-acts the Southern status of the legend of the Once and Future King, Arthur.* The notion of Arthur is prevalent across the lower parts of England and Wales and has a particularly strong presence in Winchester. Yet through the looking-glass I have discovered a lack of knowledge pertaining to the legends and figure heads that exist nation-wide and a disregard in the existence of those who follow the myths of the North. I am not denying the fact that a figure such as Robin Hood could be an ideological theme to suit and satisfy the much put-upon peasant classes of the early middle-ages and therefore may not be truthful but the theory is that a legend or myth has some basis in fact. So here I wish to explain the beginnings and theories of the devious archer that dominates the history of Nottingham and the south of Yorkshire.
The stories of Robin Hood originate from around the 14th century, and are a follow-up of the antics of Arthur in ballad and poetical forms. While Arthur holds the title of king, Robin is the anti-king who as an outlaw reinforces the stereotypical divide in the north and south over who reigns over the land, something of which can be disputed. Despite being described as being one of the lower-class he follows the same chivalric order of honour and wisdom due to his familiar ‘steal from the rich to feed the poor’ statement. He offers the same charitable and kindness that a man ought to show to those less fortunate than them. Yet there is reason to believe that the legend of Robin first began as one of the nobility, he appears in official court records under the name of Robert Hod who was exiled from court for some misdeed. This could establish and explain the legend of his disregard for the wealthy and be the beginnings of stealthy skirmishes to regularly steal from the Sheriff of Nottingham and King John of England when he is known to be near Nottingham.
While Robin remains a fixture in popular culture, see Morecambe and Wise, Blackadder Back and Forth and several silver screen adaptations, the discussion of his existence is still a questionable thought. His romanticised relationship with Maid Marion was enough to convince Disney that he needed attention. In the film he was brought to life as a fox possibly outlining thoughts that he was not noble but a metaphorical urban issue that needs to be dealt with; as at the time of its release in 1973 fox-hunting and culling was occurring at an almost increased amount across America. It established Robin as a myth in English folk law discouraging children from delving deeper into history to discover the fact behind the animalistic fiction.
He lives and breathes in Sherwood Forest where his songs and legend is still celebrated today. For those who do not believe me, take the Lime or Purple bus line from Nottingham City Centre to see the festivals in action and join the medieval merry-making in costume and drama. Hood is designed to be a sociable creature that interacts with people from all social levels and has a dedicated crew to help him with the initial plan of “steal from the rich” and make life a little less monotonous with living in a forest. The most famous of his ‘merry-men’ are Friar Tuck and Little John. Little John initially originates from Derbyshire with his name switched from John Little. Robin and John started their companionship as enemies and the ballads slowly follow the route in which they become compatriots. The irony is that ‘Little’ John is known to have been a man at around seven feet tall and he became the beginnings of a long tradition of a hero having a side-kick with the traits of John. He was thought to have been a straight-forward man who could be mistaken for dim-wittedness, an enduring trait that is often given to side-kicks even today. There is some doubt over whether John, just like Robin, existed. However, in 1789 in the parish churchyard in Hathersage, Derby a thighbone of a man thought to of the height John would have been that has been dated from the period in which Robin and John were supposed to live.
The merry man known as Friar Tuck comes from what was happening during the 14th centuries. Tuck once belonged to a monastery in York but it is thought he was expelled for reasons unclear. He is meant to underpin issues that was coursing through the Catholic Church in England during the 1300’s in that monks did not lead a celibate life, but enjoyed good food, wine and expensive tastes that came from the extensive lands that the church owned. Some adaptations of the Robin Hood ballads show Tuck as a kindly helpful monk but still show self-righteousness that the Church was thought to display because of the authority over people that they are given.
The main adversary for Robin Hood is the Sheriff of Nottingham, meant to keep law and order in his area but through the stories and ballads is known to be a bit a failure in both controlling Robin and keeping order in Nottingham. All three of the main characters appear from early on in the ballads suggesting the influence for the characterisation of them was already set into the English midlands culture of the 14th century. The fact that the Sheriff is shown to be greedy and corrupt is meant to represent the officials of shires who mean to sift money from the taxes that come in before being sent on to the king, a theory that still has grounding today.
The fact that the stories are still well-known today shows the strength of the oral culture that eventually will get written down by scholars or fans of the ballads sung at festivals or around camp fires. All the known Robin Hood stories can still be bought today in any book shop for anyone wishing to know the mischief in which Robin gets himself into.
*The years of Arthur from childhood to adulthood is documented in 5 chronological stories in the “Once and Future King” by T.H.White published in 1958 now available in all good book stores.